Let’s face it – travel is riddled with temptation and travel fitness sometimes seems out of reach.
Who wants to think about exercising and stretching and dieting when we’re on vacation? I know I certainly don’t!
BUT. As we get older, we may need to stay in better shape when we travel.
Because with unfamiliar foods, excessive indulgence, strange beds, lapsed gym routines from home, poor transport or unexpected tropical pests, our health may take a beating.
Bottom line: if we want to stay on the road for any length of time, we need to keep fit and at the very least achieve some level of functional fitness if we’re not there yet.
This can be easy (in hotels with gyms, for example) or harder (when visiting delectable foodie destinations) but… It. Can. Be. Done.
Here’s how. Whether you’re an athlete or a couch potato, some of these travel fitness tips will apply. You may follow this advice kicking and screaming, but it’s better than not following it at all.
FIRST, GET IN SHAPE BEFORE YOU TRAVEL
To boost your chances of returning home in no worse shape than you left, ask and answer some of the questions below.
How fit are you now?
There’s no point in landing at your destination and deciding forcefully that you’re going to lose weight, get in shape and return home a changed person. If you don’t already do some of these things at home, you’re not really going to start doing them on holiday (unless you’re at a spa or riding camp, perhaps).
If you exercise daily and are in shape, you’ll be able to face pretty much any physical challenge travel throws your way. But if your idea of exercise is to lift the remote control (not that I believe this is the case for anyone reading this!) all evening, then think hard about heading off for a trek in the rainforest or a hiking holiday.
Adapt your trip to your present reality.
Find out what you’re getting into before you go
Will you have opportunities for workouts while traveling? Is there a gym or a pool where you’re going?
What is the topography like – is the area flat, mountainous or hilly? Extreme altitudes can be dangerous and no one knows whether they will be the one to suffer altitude sickness.
Is there public transportation everywhere or will you have to do plenty of walking? If so, you’ll have to get your footwork up to speed. If you’ve been sedentary all year, walking non-stop isn’t going to make for a great vacation.
Is your accommodation easy to reach or will you have to lug a heavy backpack across the pedestrian alleys of an old town that doesn’t permit vehicles? If you have to carry something any distance at all, make sure your upper body is fit to do so. Practice carrying your packed bag up and down the stairs, and work out your arms with a few weights (cans of soup will do fine if you have nothing else).
The best thing you can do is get fit before you go. I’m no fitness instructor and getting fit for a trip is always a challenge but it makes sense to match your present fitness level to your upcoming trip.
Here are some basic travel fitness tips you might consider taking on board before leaving – I try to do some of these things to get into shape before going on a long trip:
- Practice walking until you can walk past Starbucks without dashing in for a slice of carrot cake. You should be able to walk several hours without crumbling.
- Build up your upper body strength – arms, back, shoulders – so you can carry your gear without keeling over.
- Build up your leg strength – you may be walking for hours and you’ll need to be pain-free.
- If you plan to be lugging a suitcase or a bag around a lot, fill it with books, rocks or clothes that match the final weight you expect to carry. Wear or carry it around until it’s comfortable and you can do it for a bit without fainting.
- Build up a bit of aerobic exercise – you’ll be grateful for this when you have to chase after a bus while carrying all your things.
- Join a yoga class. It’ll strengthen you and make you more flexible for those nights on strange mattresses or hard bamboo beds.
- Exercise in conditions as similar as possible to your trip. If you’re headed for the mountains, practice on hills if you can.
Remember to take along the right clothes (this entire section is about travel clothing) and if you’re planning to use new walking shoes on your trip, please break them in with long walks at home! You don’t want to end up with blisters when you’re trying to enjoy your trip.
None of this needs to be complicated and I set myself a series of small daily exercises to get into shape before I leave: I suck in my tummy whenever I walk under a door frame; I’ll do a squat or two while waiting for the kettle to boil; I’ll stretch (discreetly) when I’m waiting in line at the supermarket; I sit and stand often while I’m working at my computer; I’ll take the stairs rather than the escalator at the department store; and the dogs get longer walks than they usually would. Getting into slightly better shape doesn’t have to much effort. It’s just a question of remembering to do it and taking advantage of opportunities.
HOW TO STAY IN SHAPE ON VACATION
Once you leave, in “relatively prime condition”, it’s easy to forget all that training and assume the very act of traveling will keep you in shape.
Unless you plan on hiking major distances each day, much of your time may be spent sitting on a bus, sampling local cuisine, or relaxing with new friends (often in front of a calorie-laden drink). Not a great recipe for travel fitness.
Here are several strategies to keep you in shape on that trip.
1. Walk as much as you can
You’ll need public transportation for long distances but if you can, walk as much as possible. You’ll also get to see so much more than you would from a moving vehicle.
- Walking tours are a great way to see a city from its best angle, and they’ll keep you on your toes several hours of the day.
- Most cities have parks and open spaces in which you’ll be able to walk safely.
- Make those walks as brisk as possible. If you tend to slow to a glide after the first few minutes, consider wearing ear pods and listen to some great walking songs (I have a set of xFyro xS2).
- At the end of your walking day, take a minute or two to stretch, so you can avoid cramped muscles (and start all over again the next day!) If you need help with stretching, there are plenty of apps to help you along – I haven’t tried them yet so I can’t recommend them but they do look like they’ll make your life easier. I’ve been using this book for most of my adult life – I have a few torn and worn pages I’ve copied and which I tuck into my bag when I travel. I’m tempted to try one of the new apps though!
2. Wear a fit bit or similar counter
Wearing a Fit Bit follows on from the step above: if you’re walking a lot, knowing how many steps you take or how far you’ve come can help energize you and motivate you to keep going yet another day.
I bought this incredibly cheap fitness tracker and wear it every day when I’m on the road (I’m actually wearing it at home too). It’s not as sophisticated as the Fit Bit but it counts my daily steps and that’s enough. To stay fit, you’re supposed to walk at least 10,000 steps a day but when you’re visiting a city or exploring a new place, you’ll easily surpass this.
3. Build a routine of travelling exercises
If you exercise while traveling and walk a lot on top of that, you should be able to eat pretty much anything you want without having to worry about your health or shape or weight when you get back home.
If you have an exercise routine at home, try to pare it down for travel: perhaps you can cut it by half or a quarter and still manage ten minutes a day without feeling too put upon.
Your travel workout routine might be as simple as this:
- 2 minutes of stretching
- 3 min aerobic or HIIT moves (which you can follow on an app or on YouTube) – you could even take a jump rope with you if you’re headed to the beach or somewhere you’ll be able to exercise easily
- 2 min strength training: these are among the best exercise bands for travel and are easy to pack
- 2 min walking in place to wind down
- 1 min of stretching
Make up your own before you go.
4. Try out new sports
If you’re a regular cyclist or kayaker, this is easy. Just keep doing what you’ve always been doing. But if you don’t practice sports as a matter of course, why not use your trip as an opportunity of staying fit while traveling? You could…
- try doing some laps if you have a pool or a safe swimming beach nearby
- rent or borrow a bicycle for an hour or two – many cities now lend them out for free and you can explore some lesser-known streets while working off that lunch
- if you’re near a national park or mountain, join a small group tour for some hiking
- and if you’re close to a river, there may well be a kayak or canoe rental nearby
5. Find a cool place for your holiday workout
Sometimes the environment makes all the difference to working out on vacation.
- If you’re a gym kind of gal, then use the hotel gym or find a place that has a gym membership for travelers.
- Find a park and practice your yoga or stretching. In Recife, Brazil I found an early morning exercise class right along the main drag, free. I exercised the entire week I was there.
- If you happen to have a beach near you, you’ve got the ideal spot for a workout. Just looking out at that big blue sea should already give you plenty of energy!
- If your hotel room has a balcony, you could use it for your basic stretches “with a view”. Just don’t use it to jump rope – you never know how they are built.
- I love the forest and finding a patch of trees is enough to make me want to stop, focus and do a stretch or two.
- Take advantage of existing situations: a waiting line can be an opportunity to stretch; a long layover at an airport is an opportunity to use the airport gym or walk around – as you would do in a mall.
6. Make sure you stay healthy while you’re away
None of this will do any good if you go and get sick on your trip. Sometimes things happen and there isn’t much you can do about it… but staying healthy while traveling isn’t impossible. You can at the very least take a few precautions: be aware of what you eat and drink, be vigilant of personal hygiene, get the right vaccinations and bring the necessary medications with you.
Eating well is an important part of staying in shape while traveling. This isn’t about dieting but about small strategies that can help prevent the bloats, excess poundage and general lethargic feeling of having overindulged.
- If you can, get a place with a kitchen. I try to make my main meal lunch rather than dinner, because that gives me time to walk it off before evening. By having a kitchen, I can make something light for supper (and that’s easier on the wallet, too).
- Have a strategy around breakfast. Either decide it’s your biggest meal of the day and treat it as such, or stay away from that buffet, which is one of the biggest dangers of travel. Piling up the breakfast plate (because it’s included in your hotel price) and then having one or even two additional major meals later in the day is not the best way of keeping fit while travelling.
- If you’re going to indulge – I certainly do whenever I travel – then perhaps you can do the healthy thing PART of the time. If that enormous wine-laced supper beckons, then exercise more the day after. Or eat less.
In the end, it’s all a question of balance.
— Originally published on 10 January 2011